| Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD. –Psalm 27:14 NIV
Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
I have just returned from a four day meeting of the Council of Bishops. At the meeting, we reviewed proposals from the Commission on the Way Forward about legislation and the future vision for The United Methodist Church – a unified church, making new generations of disciples and transforming the world in and through different contexts, cultures and understandings.
The United Methodist Church, at every level – congregations, conferences and General Conference – have wrestled with including gays and lesbians in the life of United Methodism. The conversation is further complicated because different theologies, cultures and nations – which offer different understandings and experiences – make up The United Methodist Church. This can easily be seen in the Council of Bishops who reflect this great diversity in the church and are not of one mind. While we are not of one mind, we are able to have respect, deep appreciation and forthright conversation with one another that is Christ-like. We also give room and space for differences in understandings and ways to lead. I call all of our congregations, our organizations and our conference to model this same Christ-like love.
At our meeting, we reviewed two proposals that the Commission on the Way Forward developed. Both proposals are a vision of how we can be one United Methodist Church, recognizing and even respecting one another in the midst of our differences so that we continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ, grow vital congregations and transform the world. The proposals continue us as a worldwide church.
The first is to allow churches to shape their practices about weddings, to allow pastors to shape their practices about who they will marry and to allow boards of ordained ministries and clergy executive sessions to shape their practices about ordination. This proposal would allow congregations, clergy and boards of ordained ministries/clergy executive sessions to determine how to be in ministry with gays and lesbians. The proposal has safeguards so that churches would not be forced to conform to a certain practice or to receive gays and lesbians as their pastors. Clergy would not be required to perform weddings they do not feel is within their convictions and understanding.
The second proposal is to be one church with three organizational branches, one conservative, one centrist, and one progressive in which each branch has authority for aspects of the Book of Discipline that will allow them to make changes more favorable to their theology.
The Council of Bishops recognizes this is an important and a directional time in the life of The United Methodist Church. After three days of worship, prayer and conversation, we gave feedback to the Commission on the Way Forward about the two proposals. The Commission will make its final recommendation which will be reviewed by the Council of Bishops. The final legislation for the February 2019 Special General Conference Session will be shared with the whole church in July of 2018.
All proposals have benefits and challenges and the same is true with these two proposals. There will not be a perfect proposal and there will not be total agreement. For 40 years the General Conference has maintained our current policies about homosexuality. It may very well do the same in 2019.
Each of us is called to a clear mission: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Right now, we are being called to lean into what that means for our future. As the bishops discussed, we are faced with a challenge of how far to lean in the midst of this conversation – choosing context or unity. Unity requires shared belief and practice but can become rigid, exclusive and policy focused. Context maintains shared identity and purpose and although it is more inclusive, it can lack clarity and boundaries. Both are right. The more we push into unity, we sacrifice contextual expression and the more we push into context we sacrifice unity. The bishops are seeking ways to be faithful to God as we hold both context and unity in one hand. It is not easy.
For instance, at a very different level, the church has accomplished both unity and context in worship. There are many forms and expressions of worship. United Methodists worship in different ways, at different times and in different types of places. For the sake of unity, we have abandoned the idea that there is only one way to worship. Up until the late 1900’s worship was much more proscriptive. In the last 50 years, it became more and more diverse throughout United Methodism. This is an example of unity and contextualization. In a similar way for the good of the mission, the bishops, who are a very diverse group representing different theologies, cultures and nations, seek unity and contextualization. Jesus also faced into this and many of his parables talked about the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, to honor the Sabbath and to do the things of God on the Sabbath even if it was perceived as work.
Regretfully, there are some in the church who because of their theology, ethnicity or culture are already talking about forming their own denomination or their own “branch”. This is not helpful to the discernment of the Holy Spirit. It creates reaction as opposed to discernment, splintering as opposed to being shaped by the Holy Spirit. I call every pastor and lay person to wait upon the Lord, for God has led the people through every circumstance, every challenge and every decision.
Let us trust in the Lord together. Here are some things you can do.
- Pray for the continued movement of the Holy Spirit in our church, in our congregations and in your life.
- Seek to understand before you try to be understood.
- Make plans not for what you will do if this or that happens, but for the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
- Be not anxious but trust in God.
I will continue to lead in the midst of this conversation and I will continue to provide space and room for the Holy Spirit to work in different contexts and maintain the unity of the church. I will respect different theologies, cultures and experiences and never force people to be someone different. Human force is counterproductive. Instead, we need to allow the Holy Spirit and the love of Christ to work in each one of us.
Thank you for being United Methodist. You are a part of a world-wide denomination that is growing, particularly outside the United States and is transforming lives and the world. Please pray for me and my leadership. I value your prayers and your ministry.
Keep the faith!
Bishop John Schol
The United Methodist Church
of Greater New Jersey